“It was like the staff was having a party and we just happened to get invited.”
It was a comment from a customer on social media, as relayed by Steamworks’ co-founders Kris Oyler and Brian McEachron.
With the venerable Durango brewpub celebrating 20 years in business last week, it might be the biggest intangible for why Steamworks seemingly always has lines out the door two decades after it opened.
Everything I like about being at Steamworks could always be relayed in concrete terms: The exposed rafters, the fish-tank brew operation, the wiiiiiide horseshoe bar. And the eclectic menu: I love sitting at the bar and a first-timer or outta-towner looks at the expansive menu and asks “What’s good here?” never expecting the 20-minute treatise that covers each section but always ends with my choreographed dance inspired by the smoky French dip.
All of these things contribute to the elusive “atmosphere,” but it’s the staff that puts the exclamation on it, from those off-duty congregating at the end of the bar, to the bussers and runners happily fetching Whatever, to the heartwarming attentiveness and cheerfulness of the bartenders. It’s the first place I ever saw (1) a bartender get a $100 tip and (2) a bartender emphatically refuse a $100 tip, only to (3) be convinced to accept a $100 tip. Talk about a party.
But that’s exactly the kind of place Oyler and McEachron envisioned, that accurate if admittedly overused reference of a “Cheers” atmosphere, where people pop in after work and talk issues over pints and where people know your name. (Steamworks wasn’t the first place a bartender knew my name, but it was the first place six bartenders knew it.)
More pointedly, the two wanted to create a working class brewpub. “We knew that this place – Durango – had a soul. It wasn’t an Aspen. It wasn’t a T-Ride,” McEachron said.
Growing up in the working-class town of Greeley with a family in the restaurant business laid the groundwork for Oyler, who was passing through town in 1994 and fell in love. By September 1996, now reacquainted with McEachron, the two had a business plan, a building and set up shop.
“We had this idea that let’s do something flippin’ cool in this mountain town/ski town/bike town/hike town. Those were the things we loved,” McEachron said. “Make money, have fun, work hard. Be world-class. Those were the initial goals and those still stand today.”
The two were in their late 20s at the time, Oyler 29 and McEachron 27, living in basements, sleeping in trucks and on cots, doing pilot batches in a garage and maxing out credit cards. “It was a good time to take that risk in our lives, see if we could make something happen” Oyler said.
Twenty years later, now with families of their own, the fact that they’ve evolved into a family-friendly brewpub is one of the biggest surprises for both of them.
“That’s been one of our notches that has kept us rolling hard. You can come in here with your family; your kids can be rolling on the floor hanging out,” McEachron said. “And no ones going to look at you weird. ”
That evolution is even reflected onto the Steamworks staff, whom Oyler and McEachron see as their kids as well. “We want them to (have) a good work environment and not be here until 4 in the morning like we were,” McEachron said.
The business model itself has evolved and matured over the years as well. Initially they wanted to be everything to everybody. They “toyed with breakfast, did lunches, chased late-night business,” McEachron said. “We were a bar, we were a music venue. We’ve had Harley-Davidsons burning out in here … horses riding through in Snowdown.”
The changes they’ve made and policies put in place have worked, from pumping profits back into the business with improvements to the organization and aesthetics of the property to implementing an employee ownership program, which is up to 26 staff taking part, including brewers, chefs, kitchen managers, floor managers, bartenders and waiters.
Highlights over the decades are many, but both McEachron and Oyler recalled early successes. For McEachron, it was when they won the Gold Medal with the Steam Engine Steam at their very first Great American Beer Festival in 1997, beating out standard-bearers like Anchor Steam.
For Oyler, it was their first Memorial Day weekend, Iron Horse weekend, 1997. They’d just weathered the slow season in Durango, having opened the previous September. They were both tending bar that weekend and saw their fledgling business hit $10,000 in revenue for the first time.
“We were back there, we were having fun doing it,” Oyler said. “I knew were going to make it at that point. I knew we were going to survive.”
Steamworks does six times the revenue it was doing in 1997. Oyler said he never imagined Steamworks would be such a pillar of the community.
“Work hard, have fun,” he said. “Coming to work doesn’t have to suck. We’ve always tried to espouse that and it spills over to the customers as well.”
A party, for sure.